Monday, October 14, 2019

TBR: The Lightness of Water & Other Stories by Rhonda Browning White


TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe!

Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?

These stories allow us to peek in on the lives of a wide range of strong people, from West Virginia miners to Florida bikers, from Appalachian medicine-women to heavy equipment operators. These characters, like all of us, wrestle with the people, places, and memories they cling to, belong to, and run from, learning (sometimes too late), that these experiences remain with them forever. The nine stories in The Lightness of Water and Other Stories are bound by a strong sense of place—Appalachia and the South—and prove that no matter where we go, there’s no place far enough to leave home behind.

Which story did you most enjoy creating? Why? And, which story gave you the most trouble, and why?

I loved writing “Things Long Dead.” I’d relocated to the Daytona Beach area, home of the nationally renowned “Bike Week” and “Biketoberfest,” in which bikers and MCs (motorcycle clubs) descend upon the town twice a year, and our local culture changes. I found this fascinating, especially the brotherhood—largely military veteran in nature—shared by these bikers. I knew there was a story there, and once I started interviewing some MC members, the story of this veteran biker facing his own morbidity poured out of my head. It’s one of the easiest first drafts I’ve ever written, though it still took me years to polish. I wanted to make sure I correctly represented the one-percenter biker culture, before sending this story into the world. 

“Heritage” was, conversely, more difficult. The story was always there, but it took more digging to unearth, and I changed the ending no less than a dozen times. In a near-final draft, my main character, Claire, was pregnant. My publisher found her pregnancy a bit too much, as it took the focus away from Claire’s internal conflicts. He was right about that. I was still revising the story right up until the last minute, but I believe I finally achieved the right balance, and I’m proud of how the story came together.

Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

My high and low are one and the same: I received two contract offers for publication from reputable small presses on the very same day! I received a call at work that morning from Green Writers Press in Vermont, offering publication. I came home, planning to celebrate with champagne, and before my husband could pop the cork, I received a call from Press 53 in North Carolina, also offering me a contract. It was thrilling and surreal. Quite literally, I felt breathless. I was immediately elated (They like me! They really like me!), but before nightfall, I became anxious, realizing the choice of which contract to accept could make a world of difference in the path my writing career will take. It was a difficult decision based on many factors—which took away a bit of the fun—and while neither press would have been a wrong choice, I feel I made the right choice for me at this early time in my career.

What is your favorite piece of writing advice?

Oh! Tough question, Leslie! My favorite is, of course, the one that makes sense at the time; the one that gets me over the hump of whatever writing problem I’m facing. If I had to choose one that fits all the time, it might be Barry Lopez’s admonition that the story must be about us, not about me or you. It’s sometimes too easy to fall back on what’s affecting, or has affected, me, and how I feel about that, when instead, I should be telling a story about “ourselves,” not about “myself.” I want my stories to help every reader, in some small way, to better empathize with other people and the environment in which we live.

My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?

Without doubt, I’m most surprised by how my characters Romie and Jasper Grodin got under my skin and stayed there. They appear in my collection’s bookend stories, “Bondservant” and “Big Empty,” and they are now the main characters in my novel-in-progress, tentatively titled Filling the Big Empty. They face some ugly hardships, both individually and as a young married couple, but even when they fail, their determinedness and hopefulness overpower their fatalistic tendencies. They embody the human condition in all of us, and I’m learning a lot from them.

How do you approach revision?

In her excellent writing-craft book, Wired for Story, Lisa Cron says, “There’s no writing; there’s only rewriting.” My mind is always spinning, always revising multiple stories at one time. I’m revising when I’m showering, or doing the dishes, or driving. I never read through one of my stories when I don’t think of a way in which I could tweak it to make it better; a word change here or there, a sensory detail I could add. I don’t believe my writing is ever “done,” but when I reach the point where I can read the last line and smile with satisfaction, I know the piece is finished. For the time being.

Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food associated with your book?

All of my characters love to eat and drink! (We have much in common.) In “Bondservant,” Romie makes cornbread for Jasper, and I imagine she makes it, using my very own recipe:


Rhonda’s Sweet & Corny Cornbread

1 cup yellow cornmeal
1¼ cups milk
1 cup unbleached flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup cane sugar
2 tablespoons oil
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon of honey or molasses
1 cup (canned) creamed corn

Place your lightly greased iron skillet in the oven and preheat oven to 425 degrees. (You may use a lightly greased round cake pan, but don’t preheat it.) Stir together the dry ingredients. In a separate, large bowl, combine the other five ingredients, blending well. Stir in the combined dry ingredients, just until moistened. Pour the batter into your now-hot iron skillet, and bake for 25-30 minutes, until the center springs back when touched. (Preheating the iron skillet provides a nice, crisp crust for your cornbread.) Romie and I recommend dunking a hot, crusty piece of this cornbread in a cup of milk and eating it with a spoon, like cereal. Yum!


****

READ MORE ABOUT THIS AUTHOR:  https://rhondabrowningwhite.com/ 

ORDER THIS BOOK FOR YOUR OWN TBR STACK:  https://www.press53.com/rhonda-browning-white 

READ A SHORT STORY, “Things Long Dead”http://hospitaldrive.org/2016/12/things-long-dead/





Monday, October 7, 2019

TBR: Pigs by Johanna Stoberock

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe! 


Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?

Four children live on an island that’s the receptacle for the entire world’s garbage. Garbage washes ashore, and the children feed it to a herd of giant, magical pigs. It’s a perfect system until one day a boy washes up in a barrel and the children have to decide whether he’s garbage, too, meant to be fed to the pigs, or whether he’s one of them. What follows is a fable for adults about social responsibility, environmental justice, and the things we throw away.


Which character did you most enjoy creating? Why? And, which character gave you the most trouble, and why?

My favorite character to write was the only fully formed adult in the novel, a castaway named Otis. I loved how flawed he is, how he tries so hard to do the right thing (by his wife, by his son, by the children on the island, by, ultimately, the entire world), but how, even wanting badly to follow a moral compass, he just can’t help but be driven by his own desires.

The hardest character for me was actually the book’s central character, a twelve-year-old girl named Luisa. I think I just knew her too well—the kind of frustration she feels at her situation, and the way anger takes over and gets in the way of strength: those are all emotions that I know from the inside out. The thing that was hard about writing her was finding ways to show that emotional life from the outside in. I wanted to write her disappointment, but also her fortitude within disappointment. And I wanted to write the way she handles guilt. And through all that, I wanted her to remain a child, with all the immediacy of response that children can access. It was hard!

Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

It’s been a long road to publication, so there have been lots of highs and lows. The biggest high was probably the first time I shared any of Pigs in public: I read from the first chapter in a local reading series, and for months and months afterwards people around my very small town kept coming up to me and telling me they couldn’t wait to read the whole thing. I’d never had that experience before.

The second high was when I sent it to my agent. I was worried that she would think it was too strange. But instead, she was excited by its strangeness, by the way it didn’t feel like something she’d read before.

And then there was hearing that it had been accepted by Red Hen, and the first conversation I had about it with Kate Gale, Red Hen’s Managing Editor. She so clearly saw a life for the manuscript out in the world, and she had so much faith in it, and her excitement was catching.

The lows? I’ll be selective.

Sometimes it’s lonely to write. And writing a novel takes a long time, so that’s a long stretch of loneliness. And then you get so used to living inside the world of your novel, that when you emerge, you kind of forget what life is like outside it, so that prolongs the loneliness even further.

On a more concrete level, one particular low was revisiting the same scene over and over, recognizing that it wasn’t working, but not having a solution to make it better. It took me years to fix that scene!

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

I once attended a reading by Ramona Ausubel. Afterwards, someone in the audience asked if she had any writing advice, and this is what she said: “follow your weird.” When I heard that, it felt like something just clicked inside of me. My imagination can go to very unusual places, and it was wonderful to have someone frame that strangeness as a strength rather than a weakness.

My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?

The very first line surprised me: “The pigs ate everything.” It came to me before I had a plot or a setting or a central character, and so Pigs is really built around the growing lists of stuff that the pigs of the novel eat (“Kitchen scraps. Bitter lettuce from the garden. The stale and sticky contents of lunch boxes kids brought home from school. Toenail clippings. Hairballs pulled up from the drain. After the pigs were done, there weren’t even any teeth left over, not even any metal from cavities filled long ago”). Once I’d accepted that, it became a great source of freedom—a structural device, and a device for seeing the world of the novel in great detail. And the more I thought about what we throw away, the more the characters themselves came into focus. So I guess the biggest surprise of all was the way the world of the novel created the characters rather than the characters creating the world.

How did you find the title of your book?

There was never any question what the title would be: it’s like the book entered the world with a name. At times I’ve wondered if it’s too on-the-nose, too in-your-face. But I like that the real “pigs” of the novel are not the actual pigs, and I like that the title puts a focus on animals rather than humans, and I like it’s single-syllable-ness, and I like that somehow, in our collective imagination, pigs have such resonance.

Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)

Well (spoiler), there’s a pig roast three quarters of the way through the book. And whole roasted pig is unbelievably delicious. But somehow I don’t think that’s quite the right recipe to share. So I’ll go with this: before the pig-roast, but well into the novel, Luisa, the main character, tries a macaron for the first time. While I’ve never made them myself, I’ve eaten quite a few, and think this recipe for chocolate macarons looks fantastic: 


*****

READ MORE ABOUT THE AUTHOR: www.johannastoberock.com

ORDER THIS BOOK FOR YOUR TBR STACK:


Tuesday, October 1, 2019

TBR: One Night Gone by Tara Laskowski

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe! 



Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?

Allison Simpson is offered the opportunity to house-sit in Opal Beach, a wealthy beach town, during the off-season, which seems like the perfect chance to regroup and start fresh after a messy divorce. But when she becomes drawn into the story of a girl who disappeared from town thirty years before, she begins to realize that Opal Beach isn’t as idyllic as it seems.

Which character did you most enjoy creating? Why? And, which character gave you the most trouble, and why?

I have two points of view in my book--Maureen and Allison. Maureen, who is a teenager in the 1980s, was definitely the most fun to write. I enjoyed getting in her head, and I also enjoyed writing about the nostalgia of the 1980s. (Hello, lace and Madonna and legwarmers and Lee Press-On nails!) Allison was harder because she wasn’t as brazen of a person, so her personality was harder for me to tease out. Once I started to understand her fascination with the weather, though, and where that interest stemmed from, I started to “get” her more, which made her easier to write.

Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

The book’s path to publication was pretty straightforward, actually. I had no real pitfalls in writing the draft, finding an agent, and selling the book. That’s still kind of a shocking surprise to me. But the worst thing that’s ever happened to me happened right in the middle of this process--my mother died. She died three weeks before I got an offer on my book, actually, and so I never got to tell her that news. I’m saddened every day that she’s not here to share in the news and wild ride of this book because she would’ve loved every minute of it.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

Keep pushing through the draft, even if it’s thin. You can fix thin, but you can’t fix nothing.

My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?

About halfway through the draft, I realized that who I thought was the killer was not actually the killer.

How did you find the title of your book?

I’ve had two story collections published before this book, and I’ve never been challenged before about the title. The working title for this book was The Off Season, and I really really loved that title. But the sales team at Graydon House didn’t think it really fit with the style and mood of other domestic suspense titles out there, so we had to change it.

I came up with literally like 70 other possible titles for this book. Some were TERRIBLE, and some I also really liked. We whittled it down to about seven that I didn’t hate, and my editor presented those to her team. They chose One Night Gone as their favorite, and so here we are.

After stomping around crankily for a few weeks and mourning the loss of my original title, I recognize that they were right. But it taught me not to become too wedded to, well, really anything in your manuscript. For my next book, my working title is simply “magic,” and I’m not going to get too excited about any title possibility that goes running through my head until I see it on a cover design, should I be so fortunate!

Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book?

A coffee shop features pretty prominently in the book, and Allison drinks her mochas with a dollop of vanilla ice cream on top. I have yet to try this, so I have no idea if it’s any good or not, but she seems to really like it.

*****

READ MORE ABOUT THIS AUTHOR:  www.taralaskowski.com

READ MORE ABOUT THIS PUBLISHER: https://www.graydonhousebooks.com/



Work-in-Progress

DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.